Little Lyndton, The English Greenwood, 1588
A hunting horn blasted through the forest, and the gallop of a dozen horses shook the earth. Tam pushed the sights and sounds to the back of his mind and concentrated on the tall, beautiful warrior with the eyes that shone like sapphires, the flowing ebony locks, and shoulders broader than the trunk of the spreading chestnut Tam waited beneath. Sword in hand, the warrior advanced toward him between the trees.
Tam writhed with need, his face flushing as his cravings commanded him. "I surrender, mighty one. Use me as you wish."
The warrior grinned, wolfish, and flung his sword, then his belt, to the ground. In the man's blank gaze, Tam sought the awakening of real affection, of sweeter emotions that burned deeper and longer than lust, but then the warrior tore his tunic away, paced forward, and bodily needs held sway. Tam grew transfixed by the man's cock, huge and erect, the glistening head bobbing up toward a tightly muscled stomach.
Heavens, Tam was hard for him too; he wanted this man to pin him down and fuck him roughly, and Tam craved every inch of him. Backing against a tree, he yearned to feel the scratch of the bark against his arse, even the sting and tear of a thorn, pleading with his heart as well as his gaze. Closing in fast, the warrior clamped rough hands about Tam's shoulders, and Tam strained toward him, desperate to know this man's strength. As he reached to touch the man's chest, which looked hard as granite, his hand sliced through air.
Don't wake up now. Why must it always be a dream?
His world shook; he wished this were caused by the warrior slamming him against the oak and claiming him. Somebody tapped his shoulder and ruffled his hair. A soft female voice goaded, "Tam, wake up; it's nearly time."
"Time for what?" he murmured. He knew well enough what Ann, his brother's wife, was about to say.
"Sunset," she replied, mournful. "It's the night you're to be wed."
Oh yes. Tonight I, of all men, must claim my fairy bride.
"Agh!" He pulled the threadbare blanket to cover his head, rolling over. Denying the truth felt easier than it ought. "Leave me be."
For a few moments, he wandered back into the forest of his slumber. It was silent now. His warrior had gone. Tam's erection withered as his rushing thoughts vexed him.
One late summer eve every dozen cycles of the sun, the fair folk offered the chance for a village man to travel into the Greenwood to attempt to claim a fairy as his bride, a task for which Tam had been selected, to his initial horror. Although the ritual brought great luck to the village, sorely needed right now, no poor lad had ever actually returned with his bride.
Nobody knew what became of them. So the legend said, they lived their days happily wed to one of the fair folk, although rumor told they fell to foul spirits or the fairies' protector, Herne the Hunter, or even the terrible Wild Hunt. Tam would have fled for the hills, had not the very fairy maiden whose embrace he feared approached him. To most careless villagers, Calleagh might have seemed no more than an uncommonly beautiful woman. Tam had perceived she was fair folk when he'd first glanced into her violet eyes four weeks ago, before he'd recognized her green cloak that danced in the breeze as only cloth spun by fair folk could. She'd praised Tam for his keen wit and told him she'd help him triumph where all men before him had failed. Calleagh wanted to marry him, to become human, and he knew he should desire this betrothal, his key to respect and adult life.
As Ann's mutterings crept once more into his consciousness, his instincts still whispered, Run away!
"Damn!" he cried out.
Waking fully with a jolt, he pulled the blanket from his face and glared at Ann, who scowled back, wrinkling her thin, freckled nose and tucking a stray tendril of mushroom-colored hair into her cap. Her eyes looked red and swollen, as if she'd been crying.
"I've made you supper," she said, "and all you can do is swear at me? You better come down. Richard is getting impatient, and Jerome will have eaten everything if you don't make haste." She rose, scuttling from the room and slamming the door so the wattle and daub shook.
This, then, would be the night of his betrothal. Even if he made it through the forest, how soon after must follow the consummation he truly dreaded? Ballad singers informed him a woman's moist cleft would set his loins blazing as his hands never could, and he was willing to learn if he truly must. He'd rather roll in the bracken with a beautiful fellow, but that could be no village man's waking life. He only hoped Calleagh would bless him with time to grow accustomed to the idea.
"Damn," he repeated miserably, and he followed Ann downstairs.
"Behold! The hero who'll keep the Spaniards from our doors," shouted Jerome as Tam entered the little hall, ending his greeting with a snort of derision. "Woe is England, then! Tam can't even keep the hogs from our doors. I don't see how he's going to save us from invasion, even with all the luck of the fair folk shoved up his arse."
Still bleary from sleep, Tam ignored his second eldest brother, a thickset, red-haired jolthead, who chewed on a hunk of meat like a cow on the cud, his pea-green eyes filled with an equally cloddish level of intellect. Tam had enough worries without paying attention to Jerome or being reminded yet again why a little fairy luck was sorely needed by the village of Little Lyndton. Not only was harvest hard by; the Spanish Armada circled English shores like wasps, and rumors of invasion abounded.
"They say that if the land is to be ruined, first the Wild Hunt must ride, as in every old legend of destruction." Jerome grinned, baring his yellowed teeth. "You venture into the Greenwood, and they'll skin you alive and roast you on a spit, runt. If the fairies don't eat you first."
"I'll die happy if they tell me they're going to boil your head for their next meal," muttered Tam.
"Lads! For once in our lives, let us have peace," said Richard. The eldest brother raised a hand, demanding quiet.
While Ann shuffled off to pile food on a platter, Tam slid onto a bench next to Richard, on the far side of the hearth across from Jerome. Yeoman and head of the household since their father's death, Richard wore his black beard styled to a fashionable point, and his clothes were cut of a finer weave of linen that the rest of the family's.
He placed an empty tankard down on the straw-scattered floor and regarded Tam with probing curiosity. "How you feeling about your betrothal, lad?"
Tam shrugged. "Ready, I...I suppose." He nearly choked on his lie. He'd never felt less ready, but what choice was left to him? Then Richard slipped a stiff arm about his shoulder, and Tam jumped an inch in the air. His eldest brother had never been an affectionate man. Now Richard smiled indulgently. Did the gleam in his eyes hint at some sort of pride?
"I know the precedents aren't good," said Richard, "but you're the cleverest fellow I've ever known. You'll be lauded by the whole village on your return, hailed as a hero."
Jerome chuckled and slurped mead from his tankard. Tam considered kicking his shin.
"When you return with your bride," continued Richard, awkwardly rubbing Tam's back, "I'll build you a cottage. Yes, a fine stone cottage, and you can farm your own strip of land. How does that sound?"
"Most generous, sir," replied Tam, but he wriggled so violently Richard pulled his arm away. They stared at each other a moment, Tam wondering if the deep mistrust he felt was mutual. In all Tam's twenty-one years, Richard had never before seemed so pleased with him. Despite that he was one of the best students ever to bless the village petty school and dreamed of being a scholar, Richard had set Tam laboring on his forty acres and looking after the chickens and hogs.
And now he was offering him his own home?
Before further questions could form on Tam's lips, Richard turned away and shouted at his wife.
"Hurry up and serve this lad some food, and pour him some mead. He's got a long journey ahead, woman."
"I'm working as fast as I can," snapped Ann.
Tam hissed sympathetically and hurried to the table to help her, ducking to avoid the beams. Ann, the only occupant of the house tiny enough to stand up straight in all its tight corners, had been busy that warm afternoon. The low, smoky room filled with a delectable mingling of odors. She arranged succulent morsels of meat, and candies from violets, cowslips, and gillyflowers, some of the ingredients for which must have been costly--another sign that Richard was feeling particularly well-disposed toward Tam. The youngest, slightest brother rarely received the best food in the house. Ann, nevertheless, had tears streaking down her freckled cheeks as she worked.
"What's wrong?" Tam touched her shoulder.
"Leave me be. It's just the smoke." She dabbed her eyes with her apron, then tugged at her high collar. "I've been slaving over a hot skillet, so what do you expect?"
Tam received his food with thanks and settled back down next to Richard, his stomach clamped so tight with nerves he could not enjoy eating. Ann's weeping, although she denied it, alarmed him. Was she really so scared for him? He wished he could whisper to her that there was more hope than she realized and that Richard's faith would be rewarded. But Calleagh had sworn him to secrecy. Nobody must know the fairy had helped him.
As the sun set, Tam fastened the hooks on his jacket and tidied his hair. Although he tried, he could not muster enthusiasm to make himself handsome. Getting betrothed to a fairy maid seemed a glum prospect compared to an evening at the alehouse or roaming the hills and haystacks with his friends.
Hell, he'd much rather spill his seed in male company than with Calleagh. He'd done so a few times, though such frisking had been jest. He'd always reminded himself it could never mean more, despite wishing his companions would speak less of milkmaids while pleasuring themselves and revel in the strong bodies and bearded faces of men alone--as he wanted to. As he pulled the comb through his shoulder-length auburn waves, he struggled to keep his hand from trembling. Lord, he wanted to run away, to London, to the sea, to go anywhere but the Greenwood. Damn Calleagh, and damn Richard's strange turn of faith.
He stared through the open window toward the western horizon, where the sun sank, still blindingly bright, behind a dark line of trees.
Heaven preserve me. Will I ever see daylight again?
He drew a deep breath. Yes, he would see many more days, months, and years. Most of the companions with whom he had frolicked had settled into marriage. Tonight he, too, must push his youthful fancies and his sodomite desires aside and become a man.
At the door, Ann frowned as if he'd clouted her, and then hugged him tightly until her tears wet his shoulder. Richard slapped Tam's back so jovially he nearly toppled forward. "I know you'll survive, lad. The clever ones always do."
Jerome snickered, gulped his mead, and belched at him. Then Tam set off, up the track toward the forest, quelling his misgivings by concentrating on the instructions Calleagh had given him.
"Follow the narrow track that winds from the ash grove until you near the blasted oak, and then wait. The first guide will come to you, and when you answer its question correctly, it will set you on the right path."
The blasted oak proved easy to find, and he waited, palms sweating, breathing deeply of the hot summer night rich with the syrup of windfall fruits. Always hating idling, he kicked at a moldering plum, felt his toe scorch--and then tumbled back onto his haunches. A green sprite, shaped like a tiny, exotic monkey with orange eyes as round as cartwheels, leaped from the plum and demanded, "What roars in your ear yet has no throat?"
Such an open play of magic snatched Tam's breath, but he steeled his nerve. The little sprite jumped on his knee and leered at him, and Tam refrained from laughing in its face. Calleagh had told him the challenges would prove no challenge--but riddles? He offered a coy smile before he answered. He couldn't help it.
Riddles were as simple to him as pissing in a pot.
The night seemed to last an age. Tam answered two dozen riddles and followed winding paths through ditches and bogs thick with mud that clung to his shoes, and with brambles that bit his ankles as readily as the flies did. When finally he heard Calleagh call, she startled him.
"Take it!" she cried. "Take the betrothal ribbon from the sacred oak and bind me to you as your fairy bride."
Breathless from his journey, he turned to see her crouched in a circle of toadstools, her golden hair and porcelain complexion glittering as bright as the moon that lit his way. Just a few yards ahead, he saw a green ribbon pinned to the trunk of an oak amid a tangle of holly. The betrothal ribbon. It was as broad as his wrist was wide and as long as his arm. So he'd made it to the secret dell where the ritual would take place. Nerves surging once more, he picked through brambles toward the tree.
"Hurry," said Calleagh. "Wind it about your wrist. You've only till dawn, my love, and dawn hastens upon us."
He unhooked the ribbon, heedless of the holly leaves that scratched his hands and drew blood, then tied it around his wrist. The ribbon felt...sticky? Curious, he lifted the fabric and sniffed an odor sweeter than any exotic conserve or candy.
Wild honey, from a hive hidden in the branches above, trickled over the oak and the holly, coating the ribbon and setting his wounds sizzling with exquisite pain. Licking his fingers, he tasted nectar mingled with the copperlike tang of blood. His stomach tightened, bile rising in his throat. Calleagh's touch on his shoulder set his heart galloping, and he turned. The glow of her smile ought to have melted the sharper edges of his fears. His mouth went dry, the sugar turning to grit.
"The youngest son of a yeoman is always the cleverest." She wet her lips as if preparing for a sumptuous feast, then lowered her voice. "You had no difficulty with the riddles of the spirits, sweet one?"
"No," he whispered, aware Calleagh's fairy sisters would be with them soon, and they, like his kin, knew nothing of the guidance she'd given him for his journey through the forest. "The first spirit asked, 'What roars in your ear yet has no throat?' The answer was the wind. I would have known as a mere boy."
"You are still a boy." She bridled his objection, pressing her forefinger to his lips and laughing. "Answer this one, my clever boy, and become a man. I prick, I tug, I slip, and I bend. If I don't fit, then lick my end. What am I?"
His cheeks flushed with blood. For once, he wished his mind were not so quick. "Uh...a needle and thread?"
Calleagh grasped his loins through his breeches and squeezed so hard he winced. "Don't jest with me. I feel your answer here. Must I lick it, or will you stand proud for the sight of me?"
Stepping away, she unclasped an emerald brooch at her throat. Her cloak floated to the ground, leaving her standing before him in nothing but a transparent gown that revealed the outlines of her full breasts and the golden hair between her legs. He slid his gaze to her eyes that danced with unspoken promises. Calleagh was beautiful. Yet despite reason, ambition, and all the rewards she may bring, he felt nothing for her, beyond his vague fear of her kind.
"Under the morning dew, I will make you moist," she said. "In the rain, you will weep with pleasure. My secret rivers are flowing for you. Take me now, and make me of your mortal flesh."
Heavens, the fairy's flowery words gave him a headache. "But...but..."
His fists balling at his sides, he scrambled for the right words, not knowing if they were of refusal or acceptance. He'd come so far and convinced himself so strongly this was right.
"What is it, my love?" Calleagh pouted. "Don't forsake me now my sisters are with us."
Oh Lord. As she spoke, fairies of every female shape and variety crowded into the dell in a starry myriad of filmy green fabrics and flowing hair. Their quick footfalls and chatter set the undergrowth rustling.
Rising onto her toes, Calleagh drew so close he gasped in her warm breath. He let her unhook the front of his jacket and unlace his shirt, didn't fight as she stripped both away to expose his sweat-flecked skin. The heat of the night pressed in, even the wind through the trees sighing like a lover aching for contentment. Tam suddenly wished he were with anybody but this wench who strained his patience to a breaking point.
From the corner of his eye, he watched a tiny raven-haired fairy use the tip of a long stick to trace a ring around him and Calleagh. As the little fairy carved the earth and flattened the bracken, she skirted the toadstool circle, which reached two yards across. He now stood at its heart. When she threw down the branch, her jet-black gaze met his, sending shivers down his spine. Did she know the truth of what he should do? And--God's bodkins!--was that the forked tongue of an adder that shot from her mouth, slashing the roofs of the toadstools so their flesh split and spewed forth green fire?
Horror seized his guts, even as the snake-fairy vanished behind the wall of flame that rose up from the toadstools. Calleagh pinched his jaw, pressing her thumb to the dimple in his chin and forcing them to face each other.
"She means us no harm," she explained. "It's all part of the betrothal ceremony. Trust me." She lifted his wrist, from which the ribbon still dangled. "Threads wrought from the most ancient fairy hemp will bind us together in this ring of fire. You need only to take me with your body to make me human like you, and we will be as one in the world of men."
"I...uh... I think your snake-tongued sister has unsettled me. If you want us to lie together so soon, can we not go somewhere less...enchanted?"
"You are a callow child. 'Tis fortunate the binding and a kiss will be enough tonight, but there are but five days till the full moon for us to lie together and all to be well." Entwining one of her legs about his, Calleagh rubbed her mound against his rigid thigh. Warmth flushed his skin, tingling toward his crotch, but was that just his acute unease? "Though it would be best to seal it now. Come on, lad. Is it so hard to stiffen your staff?"
"My...my staff?" Must she talk that way? Good Lord, what if she addressed his cock that way for the rest of their lives together? He tried to clear his thoughts. "Are you sure you want to live in the world of men? It's much more pleasant here." It was, in many ways. Moreover, Calleagh could not deport herself in Little Lyndton like this. Rather than envied and admired, he'd become a cuckolded fool.
"We had an agreement." Her whispers sharpened. "I can awaken the serpent between any man's legs. See?" She slithered her fingers down his stomach, tracing the line of hair beneath his navel until she closed in over his loins. Through the fabric of his breeches, her touch was not unpleasant.
"Still so soft, my love?"
He closed his eyes. Would it be better to surrender or resist? She stroked him to a steady rhythm, and he strained to respond. To his slight relief, intimacy worked a scant magic. His cock twitched with life, and he hoped he might harden beneath her hand. He nearly jumped out of his skin when she plunged her hand down his breeches to tug his length and tease his flesh, sending her thumb sliding to his cockhead to smear the merest pearl of moisture. He gulped a lung's worth of stifling air and forced his eyes open. Her smile was much harder than his cock, her face inscribed with artful concentration.
"What man can resist a fairy bride to cherish him for all time?" she asked.
For all time? Her words rang hollow in his heart, and the truth became clear. To take her from her home and sisters would be a great sin. Despite all her beauty, he could never desire her.
"I know what I must do," cried Calleagh. "Let me lick you till you slip your fine staff into my silk purse with ease."
He cringed, her words destroying his last trace of arousal. She fell to her knees, reaching to unlace his already gaping breeches. Gripping her shoulders, he pulled her away.
"I'm sorry. May green flames and snake-tongued spirits consume me, I cannot--"
A roar shattered through the clearing, obliterating his final words and setting the green fire spurring. A dark figure of a man--no, surely this being was too large to be a man--reared through the flames, picked up Calleagh as if she weighed no more than a kitten, and tossed her from the circle. Then he rounded on Tam.
Moonshine glimmered on the newcomer's bold features that contorted with fury, his square jaw shadowed with beard. Tam had felt tall amid the fairy company, but this goliath had him edging backward, feeling small.
Tam grabbed at his sagging breeches, tightening the laces before they descended about his ankles. The newcomer's gaze impaled him, making him shudder as if he'd been stripped entirely. The great man's brow was broad, and from his wild mane surged a pair of enormous antlers split into many twisting branches, each flashing like ivory blades. Tam's passions raced, his every sinew stiffening where just moments ago he had labored halfheartedly beneath Calleagh's touch, and terror crippled him.
He knew this beast.
He may never have seen him before in his waking life, but Tam faced a legend among Greenwood spirits, one who could truly make him suffer for his mistake.
"Herne the Hunter?"
Herne narrowed his midnight-blue eyes, fury smoldering, and thrill vied with Tam's dread. Herne's thighs were as solid as the oaks framing the dell, while the laces fastening his sleeveless surcoat drew tight to contain the mass of his shoulders and chest. Tam urged his feet to carry him away, even if the ring of fire scalded him, but too late. Herne grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him so hard his head ached.
"Are you the reason I have been called? Did you trick her into wedding you?"
"I take nobody against their will," shouted Tam, doing his best to sound brave. He stared awestruck at the man's antlers. "You...you had no right to interrupt us. You do not understand."
Herne leaned over him, sniffing his hair like a cat would a rat to determine whether it was fit to eat. "Honey and spice. You reek of vanity, boy. Stealing a fairy maid from her family is the cruelest act of all."
"I didn't steal anyone. She wanted me."
Tam wriggled but couldn't break free. Herne clamped his wrists, holding them fast. Nausea rolled though Tam. Was this part of a trap laid by Calleagh and her sisters? Before God, he'd heard enough of the wiles of fairy folk, and Herne possessed the strength to rip his limbs off and see his blood drain for the foul spirits of Niogaerst. Or would Herne impale him on those frightful antlers? Maybe that had been Calleagh's true sport all along.
Desperation cracked his voice. "I'm the one who's been tricked. Yes, that's it, tricked! Please. Let me go, sir."
Herne tilted his head, confusion passing over his hard features. "Do I...know you?"
The relentless emerald flames pressed them closer, Herne's tightening grip prompting so many fuddling sensations that words failed him. His mind demanded he kick the beast in his balls and make a run for it, but once again his body refused to obey. He stared up at Herne's smoldering eyes, his skin weather-beaten and browned yet marked only by the finest of lines. A further revelation struck.
Now I understand the true meaning of beauty.
Herne growled, pulled Tam to him so their bodies pressed flush, and smoothed his thumb along the line of Tam's cheekbone. Tam flinched as if he'd been branded with an iron, yet the contact sent blood coursing through his veins and rushing straight to his loins.
When Herne's mouth claimed his, Tam yearned to be dominated, to be consumed in his flames like a helpless moth. He parted his lips, letting Herne devour him, balling his fists into the leather of Herne's surcoat to urge him on, and relishing the scrape of Herne's coarse beard against his chin. Herne tasted of herbs and the verdant depths of the forest. Amid the rage of life, Tam sensed also the stillness of rock, the brute strength of ages, and savage, tearing pain.
He kissed back, his tongue slick against Herne's, letting the passion of their union quash the remnants of his alarm. If this was the means by which Herne punished him, then he would not resist a jot. He did not even care if the man kissing him bore the antlers of a stag or the cleaved hooves of the devil. Not when Herne cupped Tam's arse with his massive hands, dug in his fingers, and squeezed so hard his flesh sang. Tam's arousal jutted against Herne's thigh, and--oh sweet spirits--Herne's huge cock pressed into Tam's tight belly, setting him awhirl with desire.
Herne tore his lips away from Tam's as quickly as he had claimed them. Tam gazed up into his dark blue eyes, reading boundless suffering, insatiable yearning--and a glimmer of reflected gray light, too dull to be moon or enchanted flame. Indeed, both moon and flame had fallen away. The first light of morning crept from the easterly edges of the dell.
Herne relinquished Tam from his embrace. Still trembling in the aftermath of the kiss, Tam stumbled back, but not far. The green ribbon that he'd tied about his wrist now entwined Herne's too, binding them together, and it stopped him short.
He stared anew at Herne the Hunter, who appeared equally perplexed by the ribbon pulled taut between them. He looked at Herne's huge, ragged antlers. His awareness of everything that had happened prior to their kiss trickled back, and a sickening realization overthrew his desire. The question escaped his lips before he comprehended its full horror.
"You kissed me and bound me to you in the circle of fire before dawn. Does that not make you and I...betrothed?"