After two hundred and sixteen years in Herne the Hunter’s company, Tam well understood the warning signs when his lover’s temper was about to break.
Herne strode to the heart of what had once been a ring of ancient oaks, clenching his fists at his sides, his bold features stiff. Each tree had been reduced to a knee-high stump, the scars left by the axes that cleaved them as jagged as they were fresh, and the sapwood still bled. A muscle twitched along the line of Herne’s jaw. He threw his pack to the ground amid a patch of nodding bluebells and bared his teeth. Tam paused at the edge of the circle, sucked in a swift, nervous breath, and braced himself.
The great huntsman raised his arms and roared toward the pale spring skies. Birds flapped, and rabbits bolted, betraying their hiding places with the white flashes of their tails. From Herne’s wild mane of chestnut curls, his antlers burst forth and extended to form twisting branches, as impressive as the brawniest stag’s.
He panted heavily through his nostrils. “Sweet Goddess, ’tis worse than I feared.”
“I’m sorry.” Tam hurried to his side and touched his wrist. Affection diluted the naked fury in Herne’s eyes and tugged a sympathetic smile from Tam’s lips. “Do you think this is why we’ve not heard from the fairies? Has the felling of the oaks driven them away?”
Herne drew Tam into the circle of his arms. “Spirits damn me, we should’ve come sooner. I hate this modern world and the destructive folk of these times. I abhor them.”
“Shhhh. It’s not all bad.”
Tam rested his cheek against Herne’s solid chest and listened to the thump of his fellow immortal’s heart. Unlike Herne, who dwelled always on the past, Tam found much to enjoy in every age. On one matter, though, Herne was right. It had been a whole century since they’d last visited the Greenwood, and they’d neglected it too long. They’d had plenty to deal with elsewhere, defending their home in Windsor Forest from plow, ripping tool, and the king’s zealous gardeners, and answering the calls of the Scottish pixies, whose lands had been ravaged, their people forced to flee. No such plea had come from the proud Elfaene, who was the queen of the Greenwood’s fair folk. Herne’s niggling conscience had prompted them to make this journey, to search for the fairies he’d vowed to protect—and Tam was always happy to return to the forest where they’d been thrown together and fallen in love.
When he peeped over the huntsman’s shoulder at the scene of devastation, sadness washed through him. Tam had played in this glade as a child in the reign of Queen Bess, and the enchanted trees of theGreenwood were dear to him. The holly that clung to the desecrated oaks had also been hacked. While the tough little bushes still lived, their fallen leaves and blackened berries were scattered amid the debris.
The oak and the holly.
Among the Greenwood trees, over two centuries past, Herne, spirit of hunting and the oak, had claimed Tam’s human body and remade him as a demispirit of the holly. The recollection of that wonderful night fortified him. This forest’s magic was powerful, and they’d only arrived this morning. There were many more places to seek fairies.
“I know this is bad,” said Tam, “yet it’s just one glade, and the Elfaene is tougher than a fresh walnut. I’m sure she’ll turn out fine, and the rest of the fair folk too. Hell, they’re probably still hunting village lads to persecute, poke, and strip.”
Herne’s amused grunt betrayed that his anger had waned. Now Tam could turn the huntsman’s wild passions to their advantage. He splayed his hands across Herne’s back, smoothing the leather of his old-fashioned tunic, relishing the muscles beneath. Herne relaxed under his touch and looked down at him, those great antlers swaying forward, and raised a brow.
He cupped Herne’s iron-hard arse and squeezed. “I’d feel a lot better if we found the fairies’ secret betrothal dell. Do you remember the way?”
“I do.” Herne’s midnight-blue eyes glinted, and heat seared between them. Tam felt the outline of Herne’s burgeoning erection against his belly, and his cock twitched in response.
His smile broadened into a grin. “You know what those bloody fairies are like. Inquisitive as washerwomen. If we set about recapturing past glories—if you claim me all over again—they won’t be able to resist coming to watch. Then all your worries…will…be…over.”
Tam’s words trailed to near nothing as Herne pressed forward and seized his lips in a ravishing kiss. He yielded at once, drawing Herne’s hot tongue inside, savoring the scrub of hard stubble against his softer skin. Even after all their years together, Herne’s taste and commanding demeanor sent a wondrous shock coursing through him. Herne’s raw masculinity had been wrought in a lost era of tribal lords, when he’d battled the might of Rome. His power as a spirit—gifted to him by the Mother Goddess, creator of all things—rolled in torrents from him too.
Herne crushed Tam against him, sweeping to such depths that Tam could scarce breathe. Tam didn’t care. He slipped his tongue against Herne’s and worked the kiss with an affection that sang sweeter each season they passed together. The demispirit of the holly, while not always in perfect agreement with his lover, had been created to cherish the oak.
When Herne finally broke the kiss, he cupped Tam’s face and growled in hunger. Tam gasped for air, and his cock ached. He needed Herne to pull him closer, to fuck him to oblivion, and he couldn’t contain the lust that flooded his veins.
An exquisite pain ripped through his head, and the pressure released. As Herne caressed him, his antlers surged upward from his skull. When Herne had made him a demispirit, he’d shared his crown. Though not as majestic as Herne’s, Tam’s horns were now as impressive as those of a buck in his prime, covered in a velvety down.
Panting, Tam scuffed his foot and straightened, adjusting to the weight on his head. When he leaned closer to Herne, their bony appendages interwove with a noisy clack.
“All right?” Herne’s voice sounded thick with desire.
Tam nodded, teeth gritted. When their antlers reared, their carnal needs—whether born of man or beast—held sway. He gathered his breath and then grabbed Herne’s hand. “Let’s find this dell, or you’re going to have to fuck me right here among the bluebells.”
Wildfire flared in the huntsman’s eyes. With an impatient snort, Herne slung up his pack, and they ran.
A blossom-scented breeze blasted Tam as they bounded over tangles of ivy and lawlessly straggling flowers, into deeper, denser forest. Swift and sure as stags, they wove through glades of beech and pine, damp with dew and drenched with the smell of herbs. The race exhilarated Tam. They ducked the low limbs of the chestnuts and leaped winding roots; coarse brushwood scratched his ankles, but with Herne grasping him, he could never grow tired. The huntsman exuded strength as surely as their perspiration mingled where they touched, thrilling him, though he couldn’t help noting the forest’s scars. Many young spruces and firs had been brutalized with coppicing—an ancient practice and part of the forest’s life. But it had grown too prevalent, and where some of the oldest, greatest oaks had once stood, yawning gaps had opened up, revealing the woolly clouds sailing above.
His rising nerves diminished his ardor. Would the dell where he and Herne became betrothed still be there? While he was always keen to embrace new ways and customs, he’d be saddened if none of the beloved places remained intact.
Herne thundered to a halt. The laces of his tunic had unthreaded during their run. His garb fell open to display his heaving chest, adorned with crisp, dark hair. Tam wanted to tear the huntsman’s clothing from him but looked around first. “Are we here?”
Tam spotted a distinctive oak at the head of the dell—with the hooked branch from which he’d once taken the betrothal ribbon—and laughed with delight. “Yes! It’s still here. And look.” He pointed to a circle of toadstools, three paces distant. They were small and shriveled, an unhealthy yellowy-fawn color, but they were there. “The fairy ring remains too. Come on.”
He drew Herne into the circle, which reached about two yards across, and they stood at its heart. Herne held him and rubbed his erection against Tam once more. “Do you remember what we do now?” teased Tam. As he laughed, a stiff breeze skirmished through the trees, and a line of worry creased Herne’s brow. Tam’s humor faded. “What is it?”
“I heard something. A faint whisper on the wind called my name.”
Tam hadn’t noticed anything so distinct, but he’d been caught up in his joke and focused above all things on Herne. His hopes lurched. “Do you think it was them? The fair folk? I’ll wager they’re coming to watch us.”
“Maybe it was,” mumbled Herne, easing his frown. “Now be quiet, and let me fuck you.”