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He was breathless. Ragged gasps and wheezes pulling their way out of his body simply because his lungs wanted to expand more than genuinely trying to keep breathing. After all, why should he keep trying? His death was a foregone conclusion. Handicapped by the enormous weight of the stag’s head secured to his own by an iron cage, there was no way he would outrun the hunt forever.
His one advantage was that he knew this park better than he knew the backs of his own hands. He'd spent decades working them for the man now attempting to ride him down, and survival instincts were hard to fight. Every time he felt like giving up, he would hear the hounds on the edge of his hearing, and he couldn't face being torn apart by them.
Coincidence or maybe a subconscious sense of irony had brought him to take refuge in this place. Once the site of religious worship, the ruins of the old Roman colonnade had been turned into a folly for the pleasure of his lord (and his lord’s chosen “companions”). And while he was not normally inclined to devotions, at this particular moment Richard found himself drawn to pray. Perhaps the much older gods of this place listened better than the useless God of his father.
“Oh Lord-” he started, pausing when he realized the form of address felt wrong, too reminiscent of his father’s God. He sobbed, not knowing how to continue.
Blood and other fluids from the decaying stag's head dripped, mixed with his own sweat and tears. The clearing the folly was in grew preternaturally quiet, and a sweet tune could be heard, played on the kind of pipe he often played himself.
His knees went out from under him. He sagged, the gentle music bringing a wash of relief.
Where had the baying of the hounds gone?
He shook his head. It didn’t matter. No hounds meant he was safe - however temporary - from the hunt.
“Thank you,” he whispered, his breathing finally becoming more even.
"Don't thank me." The voice was soft. His muscles trembled and his neck ached, but they both suddenly ceased, and he could no longer feel the weight of the stag's head. "For I mean to use you to teach your Lord a lesson. But I have more mercy than some, and this will not hurt for long."
His skull hurt. More blood trickled down the side of his face, the baying of the hounds mingled with the pipe music and a feeling of great energy suffused him. The voice grew firm, echoing throughout the folly.
"One last chance I give you, oh Lord of these lands. Mercy will beget mercy, and grace, grace. But cruelty? Cruelty will beget something ... else.”
The voice became gentle again and Richard could feel the weight of being watched though he would have sworn no one occupied the clearing but him.
“Now run, oh keeper of the wood. [Sound of baying hounds and crashing undergrowth] And let your lord’s own choices determine his fate. Run fleet-footed and free, for as long as you continue to protect these woods, I shall remain beside you.”
The hounds called again and without thought, Richard’s head snapped up, ears twitching and nostrils flaring to catch the scent. It was different - the way the hounds sounded now - but the realization that his ears felt differently, heard differently did not matter.
Run, the voice had told him. Limbs suddenly full of strength and grace, he regained his feet.
But try as he might, he could not evade the hounds for long, for they always seemed to catch his scent again, despite him plunging through ice cold streams and scrambling across terrain that should have been lethal to a horse rider.
“Is this your plan? Your great design?” He huffed angrily, his breath making clouds of condensation as he stopped. legs splayed wide and quivering. “I thought …”
"You knew the price to be paid for the killing of a white hart. By your death will his lordship’s fate be sealed. It will not hurt, keeper of the woods, and you will have a sort of peace."
“Then so be it, Old One,” Richard agreed soberly. “From this day forward, these woods belong to me.”
The horse beneath him was a magnificent creature and he had to work hard not to outpace his escorts. He was frustrated but the hounds his hounds whom he’d trained to only respond to the stag, had the sight and scent of something. He spurred the horse forward, reluctant to lose the well-trained dogs, and his escorts dropped further and further behind.
He was relieved when he caught a glimpse of what his grey hounds had fixated on. The barest of glimpses, but enough to identify their quarry as a great stag the likes of which would impress even his Royal father.
He pressed forward. The only sounds he could hear were the rhythmic thudding of the courser’s hooves, the baying of his hounds, and the rapid thud of his own heartbeat. His sight narrowed, awareness a pinprick, focused solely on that which he pursued. This would be the hunt of a lifetime, he could feel it in his bones: a tale to woo the ladies, to awe his sycophants and someday, his children.
There. The stag’s white flank flashed in a patch of sunlight, it’s hooves crunching on dry loam.
I have you now. He gave a wicked smile.
He knew this land, it’s runs and culverts, cliffs and cul de sacs. There was a sharp precipice nearby. He turned the courser sharply to come in from the stag’s flank. With the hounds assistance, he would corner it there, wait for the rest of the hunting party to catch up, then execute the killing blow.
But the hart lept. (Had he been mistaken of the ground?) Caught up with the excitement of the hunt, he spurred the courser forward. The hart jibbed, and -
He had to be hallucinating. The hart’s form had changed, looking almost as if the horns were borne on the head of a man rather than the stag he knew he’d been pursuing. He reined in the courser, heart pounding. Maddened by the scent, the nearness of their quarry, his hounds surged ahead. He dismounted from the horse and tied it’s reins to a stout branch. Hand on the pommel of his sword, and memories of his Nurse’s tales of Arthur at the front of his mind, he pushed cautiously through the branches.
He had no memory of this place, and he doubted it was to his father’s tastes (it was far too simply decorated) but he caught a glimpse of antlers between the crumbling columns and took another step into the clearing.
Run, milord. The voice was a whisper soft chill down his spine. He spun around, sword sliding easily from its sheath. There was no one was there.
For Gloriana’s sake, son of Henry, the voice warned, you will run.
Hours later his escort found him leaned against the gnarled trunk of a massive royal oak. His courser and hounds nowhere to be found. He still breathed, though he was some how … less. Faded. Weakened and unwilling to speak of what happened despite the demands of his Royal lord father.
Henry Fitzroy, the natural son of Henry, eighth king of that name did not survive the year.
The flame of cheap tallow candles guttered and hissed. His quill dipped, tapped against the inkwell, scratched against parchment. The lady’s voice, robust and full of wicked delight, whispered, and dutifully he scribed down her words.
”There is an old tale goes that Herne the hunter, sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest, doth all the winter-time, at still midnight, walk round about an oak, with great ragg'd horns. And there he blasts the tree and takes the cattle and makes milch-kine yield blood and shakes a chain in a most hideous and dreadful manner. You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know the superstitious idle-headed eld received and did deliver to our age this tale of Herne the hunter for a truth.”
“Why, yet there want not many that do fear in deep of night to walk by this Herne's oak. But what of this?”
“Marry, this is our device; that Falstaff at that oak shall meet with us. Nan Page my daughter and my little son, and three or four more of their growth we'll dress like urchins, ouphes and fairies. Then let them all encircle him about and, fairy-like, to pinch the unclean knight and ask him why in their sacred paths he dares to tread. And till he tell the truth let the supposed fairies pinch him sound and burn him with their tapers. The truth being known, we'll all present ourselves, dis-horn the spirit, and mock him home to Windsor.”
It was a well known tale, that of Horne, the games-keeper who haunted the Great Park at Windsor in the form of a white hart. That it happened Elizabeth’s bastard brother and father were both supposedly killed by some divine spirit in retribution for the execution of Horne; that was a component of the tale told only of a night in the whispers of the woodsmen in Berkshire when drink flowed freely and the hearth fires burned down to embers.
To the common man, this would be a grand jest; the use of the well known folk story of a royal haunting. But to his ladyship it would be a compliment, one more acknowledgement of her divine right, and the inadequacy of her father. It would also be a snub to those who had supported the boy whom many had assumed would have her throne.
Beside Her, all others paled. She shone - his lady, his muse - with the radiance of sun from which she was descended. Divine lady, untouchable virgin; a fact that that could not be said of the impostor, Mary.
(And to think, she, The Impostor, had attempted to use the powers of that mincing machinator, the Pope, to consolidate her rule; receiving special dispensation to marry Fitzroy, her own half sibling, in efforts to secure her right to the throne! The depths of her deceit, how close his beloved country had come to descending into the decadence of lesser countries, still sent a shudder up his spine. No, it had been too horrifyingly close to contemplate. Better to write this, the legend, drawing to his audience’s mind his lady’s ascent to greatness, then the darkness of the holy powers of Rome under whose sway they’d come so close to falling.)
But back to his beloved work. The lovely mistresses Page, Ford, and Quickly connived and the humiliation of Sir John Falstaff, embodiment of royal excess, was sealed with the stamp of their cunning. And if Sir John just happened to closely resemble certain former kings? Let the audience interpret that particular little tidbit as they chose.
In the distance, the hunting horns sounded….