As he dressed, the hunter caught sight of himself in his wife’s mirror. He remained lean and muscular, but he had aged. Strong, sinewy joints ached now, more often than not. Taught muscles had grown looser, though no less visible. His hair, once dark as soot and shimmering like the feathers of a raven had become white as the snow outside.
Turning back, the hunter studied his wife’s serene sleeping face. Oleuni, the elfin Queen of Light, had not aged a day. She remained as youthful in appearance as a maiden, her silken flame-coloured hair never changing. Not for the first time, the hunter felt pangs of guilt. The queen of light might had remained by his side, though his strength had been slowly sapped away, his hair had turned white, and the wrinkles around his eyes remained, though he did not smile. His proud antlers had been long long ago, falling from his head and never growing back. She never complained about his fading beauty, and never once did her gentle eyes hold anything but love when she looked at him. Yet she was ever-young and beautiful. The hunter would not have chased her if she had desired to leave him for a younger man.
They had met almost a thousand years ago exactly. She had been mourning over a body in a small cleaning in his woods. He had been so young then, only just grown into manhood, and still as much a boy as the years before.
Born in the hollow of a yew, he had been raised by a pack of wolves. These wolves were not any old wolves. Their pack was led by a matriarch, a giant of black fur and ruby eyes, whose dark pups guarded graveyards and crossroads against ghouls, or leading lost children home to light and warmth, killing travellers who mean the world harm. She had heard is pathetic mewlings as he struggled in the chill spring morning to find some warmth following his birth.
His first memories, recalled now as his life ebbed into the fresh spring snow, were of her wet nose pushing against his body, snuffing as she tried to understand the nature of the thing crying in the bowl of oak roots near her den. His tears had turned to giggles as she snuffed around him, her soft fur tickling his bare skin.
The mother of wolves, a goddess to some, demon to others, decided to take him in and make him part of her pack. He had grown in that pack, the wolf-mother’s efforts aided by all manner of woodland sprites and spirits. Spriggans taught him all the wonders of the wilds, including which plants and mushrooms were for eating, which would maim or kill, and how the seasons changed what could and could not be found and eaten. Satyrs would teach him music and dance, their pipes and harps creating a music that compelled even the trees to dance. Wise owls taught him the skies and how to find his way in the darkest night. The trees taught him to listen to the wind, and to understand the languages of the myriad creatures of the woods.
The wolves themselves remained his closest family, teaching him to track and hunt, and coming to his aid the many times he found himself in dire trouble. Three wolves in particular remained always by his side, their love for him ensuring that even when he left the pack, he would have kin at his side.
His youth passed in a magical haze of wonder, learning, and joy.
He had never seen a more enchanting creature in all the world. He loved her instantly.
Yet for the ardour of his heart, none of the sprites and spirits of the woods had ever taught him how to approach a woman, and so he crouched, frozen, watching the young woman weep over the body in the clearing.
Movement in the deep of the woods drew the young hunter’s gaze. From the shadows there, appearing as if made of shadow himself, an elf lord, wearing robes of deep green and a crown of Holly with sparkling berries.
“He is lost,” the elf lord said, his deep green eyes fixed ravenously on the elfin woman kneeling in the snow. He stretched out a pale, elegant hand, offering it to the lady crowned in light. “You are mine, now. Come.”
The woman lifted her head, the dancing fires not ceasing their endless dance around her crown. Slowly, gracefully, the woman stood and turned, revealing herself to be an elf, just like him. Her voice was cold when she spoke.
“I will not.”
“I won the fight, Oleuni. I won you. Come now.” He had not dropped his hand.
The woman stepped back. “I will not,” she repeated, her voice like steel. “I chose my husband, Lord Celyn. You are not he.”
Lord Celyn’s hand dropped, the smile he offered the woman was twisted and cruel. For a moment, he did nothing but stare at her. He moved so suddenly and with such speed that the young hunter could not see it all. But the Holly King had grabbed the woman, pinning her against a tree with his body.
Hot anger coursed through the hunter then. With a shout, he leapt forward, taking the elfin lord by his shoulders and throwing him across the clearing. He crouched low, remaining between himself and the Holly King, ready to fight to the death to protect the woman he barely knew.
The fight was vicious. The hunter fought like a wolf, snarling and growling. The elfin lord, however, had long years of practice with a weapon. He weaved and dance, elegant little pirouettes, as he flicked his sword cutting deep into the hunter’s chest. The wilds, however, favoured their antlered son, and the savagery of his onslaught, for which the elfin lord was not prepared, sent him fleeing, defeated, back to the deepest woods where none but the most evil spirits dwelt.
He was bleeding when he turned to the woman. She watched him with interest. When their eyes met, the woman smiled, the cold in her demeanour now entirely melting. She stepped forward, reaching out to touch the wound that cut across the hunter’s chest. He felt the edges of the wound tingle, throbbing where her fingers touched. It seemed to him that he knew her.
“Hello,” she said, her voice warm and kind.
The hunter could not speak. He was caught by her gaze and trapped in it. She laughed softly and, rising on her toes, she kissed him chastely on the lips.
They courted then, stealing away together into the wilds to exchange chaste kisses or warm embraces. Their love matured as the seasons changed and, beneath the hunter’s moon, they were wed. The ceremony was presided over by the Spriggan-Matron, witnessed by the stars and the moon, the wolves and sprites. The celebration, led in raucous cacophony by the satyrs, lasted well into the night. The couple had stolen away long ago, consummating their union while behind them the gaiety echoed through the trees.
News of the Holly King’s defeat rang with cheerful refrain over the land, and the hunter soon became the leader of a band of devoted followers; heroes, every one. With them he kept all the lands safe from creatures who ought not to be roaming it, from the twisted spirits of the dead who refused to leave the land of the living, from beasts and monsters and ghouls. For many years he led this band of warriors across the night skies, safe-keeping those who slept below.
He had retired from that many moons ago, though the Wild Hunt continued without him, rotating through their members as leaders until the day, Lord Gwyn had said, until he returned to take his rightful place. Aging and aching, the hunter doubted that day would ever come.
Sighing, the hunter turned his mind away from his remembrances. He turned his face away from his wife, Queen of Light, and, sliding his thick fur boots on, he left his small house in the secret snow-covered glade that had been his happy matrimonial home for years beyond count. He walked on through the endless night to the clearing where first he saw his lovely wife.
“I thought, perhaps, you had grown cowardly in your old age.”
The hunter turned at the sound of the Holly King’s silken voice. The man, being of elfin blood, had not changed since the last time they had met. Angular green eyes set in a pale face with high cheekbones, Lord Celyn was stunningly beautiful.
“A thousand years,” he whispered, his deep green eyes flashing. “I have waited a thousand years for retribution.”
“She will not choose you,” the hunter replied, shaking his silver head. “Even should you win, she will not choose you.”
“She need not,” the Holly King said. “I will have her regardless.”
The hunter’s warm brown eyes darkened. The fight began. The Holly King had lost none of his speed, and anger had returned the hunter’s strength, so the two were well matched as they fought in the depth of winter’s night.
It was a lucky strike, made in desperation that pierced the hunter’s side. Roaring in pain and rage, the hunter snatched the sword from the elf lord, pulling it from his side and slashing down with it. The blade cut through the elf lord’s face, splitting the skin from the corner of his right eye to the lift side of his bottom lip.
The Holly King screamed in pain, falling back into the snow, clasping at his bloodied face. “My face!” he screamed. The hunter snorted in derisive amusement. He stepped forward, threatening the Holly King with the weapon again. Lord Celyn scrambled backward, rising to his feet before turning to flee.
The hunter watched him. Only when he was certain the Holly King was gone did he permit his legs to buckle. He fell backwards in the snow, his breathing laboured. His final thoughts were of his beloved. She would mourn, he knew. But now, at least, she was free of a foolish old man. She was young and beautiful. She would love again. A soft smile touched the hunter’s lips, and remained even as the corpse cooled.
The matron was approaching her final year. Her eldest daughter would take her place, as she had done after her own mother’s death, as her mother had done in her turn, on and on down into the fog of forgotten years the line of Spriggan-Matrons traced, all the way to the beginning of time, when the forests of the world began to think and speak.
But she had one more task left to complete. It would be this task that would claim her life. It was a task she would gladly perform. If she did not, the Holly King would go unchallenged, and he would steal the Queen of Light away, plunging all the world in eternal darkness.
A chirping at her feet turned the Spriggan-Matron’s glowing green eyes down to a red squirrel, its left cheek puffed out and glowing. Smiling, the matron reached down and held out a hand, the fingers gnarled and twisted like the branches of an ancient tree. Chirping again, the squirrel removed the glowing object and placed it in the matron’s hand.
“You did well, Wiwer,” she said. The squirrel preened before darting off, seeking a warm bole to hide in.
“Welcome home, my child,” the Spriggan-Matron whispered down at the seed. She stroked the red acorn-sized nut before she placed it firmly against her stomach. She felt herself open, her body grasping at the seed, drawing it into herself. She felt it settle in her womb, attaching itself to it. Smiling, she removed her hand. Stroking her belly, she sighed. She stretched, her toes growing into the ground, reaching down to tap into the nourishing loam, becoming the roots of a tree. Likewise, her arms reached towards the sky, her fingers spreading and growing, twisting, and sprouting new branches. Soon, there was nothing of the Spriggan-Matron. In her place grew a stout oak, tall and ancient, concealing in its centre the soul that would save them all.
So she hoped as she ran. Her hopes shattered as she entered the clearing where first they met. The hunter lay dead, his rich red blood staining the perfect white of the snow.
“No,” she whispered, tears beginning their flow. “My love. My brave hunter.”
Collapsing at his side, the Queen of Light mourned. Her tears were the spring rains, flooding the rivers and swelling lakes and streams so that plains became flooded. On and on she wept, though the hunter’s corpse had long become naught but bones in the snow.
Years passed, and still she mourned, spilling her tears until she heard a familiar sinister voice from behind her.
“He is lost. You are mine, now. Come.”
Slowly, she rose to her feet and turned, facing the strikingly beautiful enemy. “I will not,” she said, her voice as cold as the snow beneath her feet.
“I won the fight, Oleuni. You are mine. Now, come.”
“I choose my husband, Lord Celyn. You are not he.”
For a moment, the elf lord could do nothing but stare at the queen who should have been his, who was his. Then he moved. In a blur of motion fuelled by covetous rage, he took the Queen of Light and pinned her against a tree with his body.
“You are mine,” he hissed in her ear. “The throne is mine.”
“I choose my husband,” the Queen of Light repeated. “You are not he.”
Lord Celyn was denied a response. Young, strong arms grabbed his shoulders and, uttering a guttural roar, the owner of those hands picked the elf lord up and tossed him clear across the glade. The Holly King rolled to his feet, his blade hissing from its sheath as he did so. His dark green eyes narrowed.
Crouched, ready to fight, between his prize and himself was a young man, broadly built, with large, dark eyes and copper skin. He had growing from his head a large pair of antlers. Another hunter, another archaic woodland spirit had come to challenge his reign, to take from him his right. The woman and the throne were his!
Snarling, the elf lord leapt forward, and the pair fought. It seemed at first the elf lord’s experience would win the day, but, as it had been for millennia without count, the vigour of the new lord of the wild could not be overcome, and Lord Celyn was forced to flee. In the dark he would nurse his wounds. He would heal. And he would plot.
Oleuni straightened as the young hunter did, squaring his shoulders as he watched the elf lord flee back to the darkened woods, where the evil spirits dwelt. He turned, dark brown eyes meeting pale flame-coloured eyes. They were warm as honey, trapping him in their beauty.
The Queen of Light smiled, stepping forward. She would know him anywhere. He would have no memory of her. But she knew. Those eyes were the same; keen and kind. In this new, strong body was the soul of the spirit of the woods that she had fallen in love with all those years ago, before Lord Celyn had grown cruel and covetous. She knew what the Holly King had yet to learn; that the hunter was as eternal as elf-kind, his soul everlasting, though his body might be subject to the same cycles it was his duty to protect. He would age and die, and each time be reborn anew.
And she would remain, by her choice alone, forever his bride.
Reaching out, the Queen of Light, touched the edges of the deep cut that Lord Celyn had opened on the hunter’s hip, letting her healing magic work through her fingers, closing the wound. She looked up into his warm eyes that gazed back at her with naked wonder, in spite of the deep wisdom of thousands of lives lived that light them.
She reached up to touch his handsome face, letting her fingers stroke the strong cheek of the only man she had ever loved.
“Hello,” she greeted.