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After the Game

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There's a sort of silence across the land as summer gives way to autumn and the kingdom is painted gold. Leaves turn yellow and red and begin falling from the trees – some would say it is the beginning of the land's annual death, but not in the mind of the hunter galloping across the fields. It is merely another stage in the land's life. He spurs his horse to keep up with his query. Edward, Earl of Rutland is a master hunter, he loves nothing more than the challenge of tracking, the endurance needed and the sheer exhilaration of the chase. His heart pounds with the thrill and anticipation of finally catching his prey.

Today he hunts the hart, pursuing the beautiful beast all day if he must. The hart runs, eluding the man who must mean death if he catches up. Delicate but sure hooves disdain the ground as the hart sprints away from the hunter after standing still for a moment, seemingly waiting for Edward to foolishly think he can come closer; taunting him. Yes, come closer, o master hunter, try to catch me. His ears twitch and he darts into the forest. Edward knows he'll have to travel on foot now if he hopes to win the game and he dismounts quickly, not worrying about his horse, she knows the way home. Edward has come too far to let his beautiful prey escape. He loves this game.

He runs part of the way, glimpsing a streak of white in front of him. He's nearing the stream now, and this part will require silence, or the hart will hear him and escape, and Edward will catch him, by surprise and with no chance of escape. Adrenalin runs high in the hunter and he's sure the stag can hear his heart pounding in his chest. He hears the slightest sound and looks up. The hart has betrayed himself and stands not twenty feet away, at the stream for a much-needed drink.

Edward does not draw back an arrow to bring down the hart. He has left his bow and quiver at home, as he has his dogs and other hunting gear. He does not need them, for he has not set out to kill the magnificent white stag for the trophies of his gleaming pelt and and crown of antlers. He has hunted for the game itself, to catch the divine thing. The forest is alive with a rare feeling that can be best described as nothing less than the presence of a king. Gold leaves fall around the hart and the hunter and some kind of magic surrounds them. The hart, faced with the hunter, does not run. He instead lowers his head and pants for the water. He then looks up, and steps across the stream to his pursuer. The hunter reaches forward a hand to touch the soft muzzle as he would a horse, but the hart jumps away, still just out of reach.

The hunter has no time to react as the hart moves back farther, then lowers his head, and brandishing his antlers charges him. He hits the ground, hunter overtaken by his prey. He's embraced and kissed by the man who has replaced the hart. Edward ensnares his prey, wrapping his arms around the hart transformed and returning the kisses. He runs his hands over the smooth back of his lover, brushing long auburn hair aside. This is what he has anticipated and sought all day, the end of the game. He's exhausted now and breaks the kiss to catch his breath, letting his body relax and his head rest on the soft grass. The man atop him smiles and strokes his hunter's sweaty hair.

“Enjoy the chase?” he asks, looking fondly at Edward.

“I always do,” the hunter replies, “both the chase and the game.” The human-hart laughs quietly when the hunter kisses his cheek. He rolls the hart off him and they lay in the grass by the stream, catching their breath. The man who was in cervine form just minutes ago stretches his naked, human body out with a contented sigh as his muscles get used to a different body than the one he's inhabited all day. Edward can't help but admire how beautiful and peaceful he looks. At the same time, the hart takes in the hunter's own beauty. Edward is already a handsome man, and he's made even more lovely hot and flushed from exertion and sun, sweat plastering his shirt to his muscles and his chest heaving for breath. They, the elegant king and the consummate hunter are made for each other.

The hunter takes the hart's hand and entwines their fingers. The land is peaceful with the presence of its king, who has for now taken human form and allowed the hunter to catch him, to master the game. For he loves this hunter – his friend, lover, sometimes playful adversary, husband, mate. They talk idly of the business of the kingdom, both the human and wild part. They then recount their experiences of today's hunt and tease each other. Edward closes his eyes and regains his breath. The world spins around him and he still holds the hart, now knowing how the planets and stars feel circling the stationary, steady Earth. Opening his eyes, just a little, he rolls atop his hart, mumbling as he kisses his neck and catches his lips again. “Richard...” he breathes the name as if it were a prayer, spoken against the mouth he does not wish to leave.

Time seems a little slower, the grass a little greener and softer, the hunter a little more alive. It must be the old magic, which King Richard lets flow freely in the forest, away from the world that doesn't understand magic. There he retains what he can. He has taken the image of the white hart as his royal badge, since his form as the hart is central to his magic, just as his hunter is central to his universe at this very moment. He surrenders to Edward's embrace, not in cervine timidity but in love and the unspoken trust between them, and he wants more and to give more. He lets his magic, usually kept deep under control, free. The earth around them is alive as they both take the spoils of the game. The chase is over, hunter and hart become one with kisses and gasps and names and endearments moaned, tenderness in being locked in each other's arms. Their bed is the soft grass of the forest, they need nothing more – it is luxurious enough for the king and his mate. The hunter feels as alive as he does during the hunt, of course he would, this is his hart. The king who brings life to the forest as if it is now spring, spring but as gold as the autumn it replaces, just as the gold crown that takes the place of the hart's antlers.

Exhausted but somehow full of strength, they lay back in the grass and relax, a few stray limbs remaining tangled. The only wounds the hunter has inflicted on his prey are a few bite marks on the neck. Edward moves to rest his head on Richard's chest, the king's heartbeat blending with the rushing stream. The sun is going down and light is cast as if through the stained glass window of a cathedral. This space is holy too, blessed by the presence of the one anointed by the Creator.

“I love you,” the hart says, tucking the hunter's head under his chin, just holding him.

The hunter draws a breath and closes his eyes, basking in the hart's words, as magic as any spell. “I love you too,” he replies, twisting his fingers in the silky hair over Richard's pale shoulder. It has been dirtied, bits of grass and a few tiny twigs sticking in it – remnants of his land. They're both dirty from being on the ground but the hunter, who loves being near the earth, doesn't care. They're close to the earth in a way they cannot be at court, so artificial and cultivated to the point of nothing truly growing, not as the king would truly have it, were he not constrained by the rules of that part of his kingdom. Though the thought of a bath soon sounds very nice.

Edward kisses Richard once more and sits up, finding his clothes and getting dressed. Richard, who doesn't have with him any of the fine clothing he loves (some parts of civilization are nice. In fact a lot of it is, just not the part that would destroy the other half of his kingdom) changes too, shifting once again to the hart. The hart nuzzles his hunter, who in turn wraps his arms around the strong neck and briefly buries his face in the soft pelt. They leave the forest in a much slower, easier way than they entered it; now walking alongside each other rather than in the chasing game. The old magic still follows the hart with each step he takes, and in the haughty beauty of how he tosses his head and shows off his antlers, and in the gentleness in his eye when he sees his companion. Perhaps the hunter will go after the game tomorrow, and perhaps the hart will again be caught, as they are both caught in their own game of magic and love.