The Wild Hunt was not something most mortals understood. It wasn't something many fae understood, come to that. It was no organised thing, no ancient ritual. It was a mood, a wild spirit of ancient times that stole across the land and caught up all with even the least sensitivity in its grasp. The Hunt was the breath of ancient gods, not the Devil, not even Woden, older still, oldest. The gods of the worlds before men, before magic, before everything. Gods from the time of primal fire, primal thunder, primal floods. Primal chaos and cruelty. The primal chase, the primal surrender of life. All of it.
The Courts, with their pretensions to civilisation, like to pretend it was their own making, their own planning. The Seelie locked themselves away, indulged in private passions and cruelties until the Wild Hunt passed. The Unseelie rode out, rich and cruel and laughing, bloodied swords at their sides, magic singing like wires around them, chasing across the land and running to ground any doomed mortal or lesser fae that crossed their path.
Jareth had been Unseelie, once upon a time. He had stood, young and cruel and arrogant, in the Halls of Nicnevin, the dark queen. He had bloodied his sword against his fellow fae, plied his magic in vicious games and bets, traded razored wit with the cruelest of fae. And he had Hunted. When the Wild Spirit came upon him, when his blood had boiled rich and vicious in his veins, when he could feel the dark passion and cruel joy rising in his heart, filling his magic to bursting with it's violent power, he had Hunted. But not as others did. Not as his so called siblings did.
And now, though he was Unseelie no longer, though he had left the Courts behind centuries since, though he had not left the shelter of the Labyrinth in long years ... now, he Hunted again.
Tonight, with the witch moon rising, the fierce power thrumming in his blood, he raced out, fleet as devils, running ahead of his mounted brethren. Hunting ahead of them, the silent swiftness of the owl in his movement, the sharpness of those night-stained eyes. He was laughing, breathless and vibrant with joy, fickle with cruelty, running low to the ground and faster, ever faster, outrunning the Nightmares for nothing but the fun of it, nothing but the pulse of power in his heart. Tonight, he was Hunter and Hunted, running for prey, turning to snap at the Hunters, shielding and bewildering the mortals who crossed the Hunt.
And there! A human child, her skin luminous in the moonlight, her dark hair like a cloud around her face, her terror a rich tang on the air, stirring his blood. He laughed, racing to meet her, turning and spinning around her, flashes of teeth and feathers, a laughing whirlwind, a devil. She screamed, terrified, and behind him the horns cried out, the hounds bayed. The Hunt had heard her, and were coming.
It was all he needed. In an instant he had snatched her up, a tiny, trembling form, crying desperate prayers into his arms, desperate curses that her mother must have scolded her for, but Jareth loved. He loved her fear, loved her desperation, the blood of the Hunt thriving on the scent of it, crying for joy at the taste. But more. He needed more.
He spun to face the Hunt, face the sneering, vicious faces of his siblings, face the bared teeth and bloodied swords, feeling her shake and scream and claw at his arms with the sight of them. He grinned, then, fierce and proud, prince-jester of the Unseelie Court, renegade and bastard son, his body shaking with the force of the magic in him. He snarled at them, magic gathering to his fingers, the girl-child tucked securely under his arm as he held aloft the crystal, letting it shine in the moonlight, letting them see. And then, as their faces began to show confusion, show the first glimmers of understanding, he cast the jewel towards them with a wild laugh, and was running even as the light burst forth and the hounds howled in agony.
The Hunt had begun.
He was faster, fastest, of all the fae of the Winter Court. He, who would run as soon as fight, dance as soon as strike. He, who loved the feel of it, the power of the prey, the burn of fear and rage and joy as he ran, as he leapt, as he spun to strike the hounds who closed in, dancing gracefully away, shielding the human by instinct and pure grace. His sword snapped out, here and gone again, drawing blood again and again, and he grinned, fierce and cruel, bloodthirsty with the night and the Hunt and the power. His brothers closed on him, time and again, magic snarling the air as they lanced at him, curling curses and vicious spells, and he turned them aside, dancing magic and light, running, ever running, fighting for the joy of it, the love of violence that sang inside him. It was the Hunt, the Wild Hunt, and he was both Hunter and Prey, everything at once, the Wild Prince.
They hated him, his siblings. Hated his history, his betrayal. Hated his grace, hated his power, hated that he would not ever stop to fight, always fleeing ahead, turning to cast stinging blows and then gone again, a shadow in the night, the whisper of owl feathers in their ears. They hated him, and that hatred spurred him on, made him powerful, made him fierce. He cared nothing for consequences, nothing for pain, nothing for the blood that spotted his white shirt and the clothing of the child. She had given up her screaming, the child, staring wide-eyed and terrified as horror after horror came out of the darkness to strike at her, and again and again were turned aside. Her hands fisted in his shirt, tiny bunches of bone that bumped against his ribs, and the grip was almost as trusting as it was terrified. Jareth didn't know how to feel about that, so he didn't bother, lost to the Hunt.
And then, as dawn approached and the Wild Blood waned with moonfall, the pursuit began to fall away, the Hunt staggering and breaking apart as sanity began to return to the fae, and pain and loss began to take their toll. Jareth grinned as more than one of his siblings actually fell from their mounts, finally realising the damage his sword and magic had done to them. Nothing too serious, really, but painful, oh yes! Very painful.
Finally, cursing and spitting on his name, they fell back altogether, the silver-grey skies of dawn driving them back, and at last he let himself draw to a halt, the blood pounding and fizzing in his veins as he calmed, as his breath eased and his magic fell back in close to his heart. He was grinning, almost laughing, so proud and triumphant that he glowed, a fierce figure atop the hill, crowing with delight in the growing sunlight. He had won! Both Hunter and Hunted, he had ruled the hunt, and curse them all who had challenged him! He grinned, lips peeling back to show sharp teeth, fierce and smug and amused. Prince-jester, yes, but so much more, so much better, than those fools who thought they ruled him!
As the sun crested the horizon, a tiny sliver, he felt a tug on his shirt, a tentative little thing, and with a start he remembered the human, the would-be prey that he had stolen to take the role himself. Startled, he looked down at the girl-child still tucked under his arm, her short legs swinging in the breeze, her face tear-streaked and trembling as she stared up at him. She was hurt, he could see that. Her waist was bruised from his terrible grip, her arms scratched from grasping hands, her eyes wind-whipped and weeping. But what struck him was her expression. Pain and terror, and the kind of childlike, innocent trust that only mortals could achieve. He almost dropped her with the shock of it, staring in horror at those bright and loving eyes.
And then, mercifully, they slipped closed as she fell into an exhausted slumber, all the fear leeching from her face as sleep stole forward, and he relaxed, breathing out, relieved of the burden of that horrifying stare.
But for some reason, as he slung her up into his arms properly and moved like a ghost back along the path of the Hunt, bringing her home, he felt moved by a strange and tender whim, so alien after the brutal joy of the Hunt. He couldn't understand the urge at all, couldn't fathom its cause, but he was past caring, tired himself and wrung through by the passions of the night. So instead of trying to understand, he simply went with it, simply let it happen, and when he laid her in her own bed, he passed a gentle hand over her brow, easing her injuries, sweetening her dreams, and quietly stealing away the memory of the nightmare she had endured. Not all of it. Even he, dream-weaver, could not take away all, not when she had been touched by so primal a magic as the Hunt, but he could take enough. Enough that it was only the distant memory of a dream, unreal, unremarkable.
And as he did, as he wove magic gently through her mind, he found her name, the source of her self, her power and courage. A name that he would remember as long as he lived, a name he would later grow to love. The most important name he had ever learned.