Here you'll find
This story has been published in the Torquere Press anthology Myths.
Perchance to Dream
The forest is quiet.
Trees stand tall, dark outlines against the blackness of a cloudy sky. The air is still, too heavy for them to bear without stooping. There is no moon in sight, clouds are rolling slowly onwards, too thick to let the sheen of a half moon through.
The forest is very quiet.
The only light is the glow of a fire burning underneath a heap of twigs and sticks, in a low hole dug into mossy ground. Surrounded by stones, the fire burns quietly, as if fearing to disturb the air that hangs still among tree trunks and bushes. Its faint light flickers on the coarse lean-to beside it, on the small pile of baggage and bunches of squirrel skins piled under the roof, out of the reach of rain that won't come tonight. The light licks the figure of a man who is sitting cross-legged close by and looking at something in his hands.
The forest is unusually quiet.
He's preparing a new snare, the smaller work knife in hand, fingers moving with meticulous precision. He knows what he's doing, he could do it blindfolded if need be. He frowns a little as light from the fire brightens and reflects from his messy blond hair. That hair was cropped short the previous fall, to make the life of fleas and lice at least that much more difficult in the winter months, when keeping warm is infinitely more important than staying clean. Now it's long enough to curl over his ears and nape, to tangle in his eyebrows. Soon it will be time to crop it again.
He glances up, blue eyes squinting in an effort to see into the darkness around him. But no, all he can see is the small sphere of light around the fire. Outside it, nothing. He's not afraid of the forest, or of darkness. He can't see, but he can hear. The fire makes a quiet crackle, every now and then a stick burns through with a sharp snapping sound, or the flame heats a droplet of pitch so that it boils with a hiss. Even that sounds strangely loud now, when the wind has stilled and nothing moves in the darkness.
The forest is too quiet tonight.
He looks around once more, one hand touching the weapons beside him. His bow and big knife are within easy reach. The spear, the one he carries just in case a bear should come too close, is leaning against his shelter. He's not afraid of the forest or the dark, but this stillness puts him on his guard.
He's not old, yet it's already years since he began to spend more time on his own in the woods than in the villages. The forest is where he feels at home. It is not always a friendly home, it rarely gives anything for free or hands things out on a silver platter. But he knows its ways, how to live and die there. How to tell the direction, how to find food and water, how to find shelter. How to be the hunter, not the prey.
He doesn't much care for people. Not for girls who make eyes at him, look at him boldly like at a horse on sale, whisper and giggle to each other. Not for men who value his skills with weapons and yet shun him. They appreciate him as a hunter and trapper, but his silence makes them uneasy. He's not one to spend an evening in the village tavern, sharing a pint and some idle talk with others. He prefers to hunt alone, keeping his camp and his most lucrative trapping grounds to himself. Loner, the people call him, the lone wolf, and they don't mean anything good by that. Loners are something one ought to be suspicious about. To be a man is to be about other people: family, kinsfolk, village. A loner is a man with something to hide; a man best left alone.
Thus he's at home in the forest, more at home than with people. But tonight this home feels different. This is one of those nights when something seems to lurk teasingly just out of his reach, watching. The air is too still, the trees too stiff, the darkness too black. He should be hearing at least something 每 nocturnal rodents, owls on the hunt, the stealthy sound of a fox paw, tree branches rustling at the touch of wind or sleepy birds. Now there is nothing, even though he tries to hold his breath just like the whole world seems to be doing. He cannot hear a thing.
For a moment an absurd fear seizes him. Has he gone deaf? No, no he hasn't 每 as if in reply, a long flame licks up from the fire and some sticks collapse with a distinct crack. He snorts soundlessly, lips pressing into a tight line. Stupid, he thinks, puts the ready snare aside and leans forward to poke at the fire with a longer stick. The water will be hot soon.
He stiffens, glances up, tries once more to peer through the dark, for he thinks he has heard something. A quiet shuffle it sounded like, almost muffled by the hiss and sparkles of stirred embers. His hand creeps to the big knife and closes around the handle. He squints, eyebrows crunching together, turns his head slowly. Is there something after all? He cannot see and yet he suddenly knows he's no longer alone on this little clearing. His jaw clenches. He stops breathing.
He hears something. A sound, slow and soft and steady, somehow a little moist. Breathing. So faint, he's not sure that he isn't imagining it after all. His senses are on edge, they tell him it's there but not what it is. A bear? He'd have heard its grunts and whistling breath. A deer? Not at nighttime. A lynx? Not big enough. A sly old wolf perhaps?
A mindless fear makes his every muscle coil and his heart thud until rushing blood is echoing in his ears, but he's frozen into stone. Only a fool attacks without any idea of his adversary. He's no fool. He waits.
He couldn't say how much later it is when his fingers finally release their white-knuckled hold on the knife and he lets out a long breath, eyes closing for a moment. He's alone.
He doesn't sleep well that night.
He lets his burden fall to the ground and shoots a hostile glance at the leaden sky. The day isn't over yet but it's rapidly getting darker, rain is approaching and he has made today's rounds shorter than usual. No use getting the skins wet, they'd only start rotting before he has time to curry them properly.
He kneels and begins to kindle the fire, then rubs his eyes with the back of his wrist when a thin tendril of smoke makes them water. He is weary and his eyes are aching for lack of sleep. His rest has been fitful ever since he felt that nocturnal presence, nearly a week ago. Whatever it was hasn't come back, but he's been dreaming too much and of strange, wild things: the forest at night, bathed in an eerie light, full of sounds and smells, wet soil, heady wind, swamp and wolves and the screech of an owl, fear and power and lust and death.
The dreams have haunted his every night and left him tired and seething. He's alone, with no one on whom to vent his building anger. At times he's afraid 每 is he going mad? Why does he feel that someone is watching him? Why does he suddenly stop and hold his breath, trying to decide whether or not to turn around? He has done it many times in the past few days and of course never seen anything. Just the forest.
So he doesn't turn this time, either. Mouth tight, he stares stubbornly into the small fire that is coming alive between his cupped palms. No, he will not look because he won't see a thing anyway. The fire is getting stronger, he adds a loose ball of dried moss, then a handful of bark scraps. They catch fire easily and now it's big enough to attack some proper sticks. He reaches deeper into the lean-to where he's piled the firewood 每 and drops them, grabs the knife and leaps backwards into a low crouch, putting the fire between him and the dark shadow looming on the edge of the clearing. Then he blinks, his mouth falls open and the knife wavers in his hand.
He's a clever man. The forest is his home and even though he's inclined to mostly believe only things he's seen himself, he knows better than to dismiss tales of goblins, gnomes and fairies as mere talk designed to frighten kids into obedience. After all, the forest is big and full of strange things and, even if he's never encountered a sprite nor been harassed by a malevolent troll, he doesn't take that as proof that those things don't exist.
He takes the usual precautions, too. Leaves behind tidbits of his every catch to keep the forest spirits favorable, mutters an apology to water fairies every time he thinks he might be disturbing their peace, avoids unnecessary noise that would upset the game as well as other inhabitants of the woods.
Yet for some reason he's always laughed at these particular stories. The ones telling of bewitched black stags, the cursed creatures of doom. Of course he's heard them aplenty 每 no one living in or near the vast dark woods of Beltrionas could possibly avoid hearing them. Stories of huge animals, jet-black from antlers to hooves and from head to tail, luring men into a hopeless hunt from which the wretched chasers never return. Of evil little elves that ride on their antlers, unseen and wicked, tricking men into trying to shoot the stags. Of men who have tried, only to die a horrible death or disappear without a trace soon afterward. And somehow it has amused him no end to observe how these unfortunate hunters are always said to be young and exceedingly fair of countenance; to hear of the hordes of girls who are invariably left wailing for them, and of the men who shake their heads sagely and sigh at the demise of such a clever lad.
Black stags, sure thing, he's said with a snort. He's seen enough deer to know that they come in many shades. A darker-than-average mature stag could easily appear black in meager light, during the rut it might well attack a man venturing too close, and a frightened person tends to see things anyway.
Now he's looking at the very thing whose existence he's always so glibly denied. He can hear the moist hiss of its breath and he can see it perfectly well. The air is getting murkier by the moment, but the stag is standing stock still, not more than ten steps away, looking at him.
Its coat is shining black all over. His gaze drops to look for the paler area that he knows should be under its belly, skims along the legs, then climbs incredulously back to its face. Black, only black. Light from the fire makes its muzzle glisten and reflects from large eyes that are steadily fixed on him. He tries to count the points of the huge crown of antlers but fails when it shakes its head slightly. It's there, it's alive and it's definitely real. A black stag.
They stare at each other for some breathless moments, the blond man holding a large knife and the stag standing like a statue. He swallows, stands up slowly. It doesn't move even when he takes one cautious step closer, then another. He wants to touch it. He can see it, he can hear it, he can smell it, but he needs the last confirmation of touch, of oily coat under his hand, to fully believe. He makes a low sound in his throat, beseeching, reaches out his hand.
The stag turns around and leaps away and the man curses under his breath. Then it stops again, another ten or twelve steps away, waiting. Its movements are deliberate and unhurried as it walks around him, lets him come almost close enough to grab its shining coat and then retreats further, playful and purposeful. The man doesn't run, no, but he doesn't give in. He wants to touch, he wants to know if this is just a product of his tired mind or something he's never encountered before, yet the animal stubbornly denies him that touch.
The man knows he's chasing something impossible but refuses to stop. Rain falls, night embraces the forest. He seeks shelter under big trees that give at least some protection against the rain, blinded by darkness and water and sweat running into his eyes, hunting by instinct and smell and sound. The stag is never far, he can smell its musk in the air and he can hear the soft sound of its hooves on wet ground, so close and yet out of reach. Always just out of reach.
The man shivers as he falls on his knees next to the marsh spring and bows down to drink. The water is freezing and tastes of earth but he drinks greedily, eyes closing against the cold. His arms are shaky when he finally pushes himself up, sits on his haunches and rubs his hands together, movements sluggish.
He has no idea how many days and nights have passed since he turned his back on his small camp in the forest and took the first step towards the stag. It doesn't really matter, either. He has been stalking the animal through woods and marshlands, across brooks and over hills, and still he hasn't managed to touch it a single time. Big hunting knife in one hand, he strides after the shining black animal, never turning his eyes from it. The stag fills his mind and he knows he's finally gone mad in his solitude but doesn't care. The only thing he still wants in this world is to touch it once and he's going to do that before his body gives up on him for good. He's past hunger and exhaustion and cold, past fear and everything else save this one resolution.
Every now and then he slows down enough to scoop a handful of berries from the tussocks of moss that shine red and blue and golden with them, then munches them absently while walking steadily onwards. Ahead of him, the stag is dancing away, calling him, leading him on. When he has to curl up on the ground to sleep, he knows it's keeping watch. Once he has woken up to see it standing right over him, head bent low as if in concern, and that's when he saw how velvety soft the shorter hair on its head and face looks. But when he lifted a hand, the stag stepped away again. No touching, it seems to say. Just come with me. And he goes.
He begins to get on his feet again, but this time his legs just buckle and he sinks back to the ground. Wet and cold seep up from the moss into his ragged clothes and through them, all the way to his skin. He trembles again, clenches his jaw to stop his teeth from chattering, closes his eyes. Just for a moment, he thinks, for the moment that he needs to dredge up every bit of strength he can summon. His head sinks slowly forward.
Something touches his back and despite the loud, shrill whistling in his ears he looks over his shoulder. The stag is there, muzzle close, head tilted back as if to keep the huge antlers away from him. It makes a deep keening sound, warm breath puffing on his neck, and nudges him again. He wants to laugh but no sound comes out, his throat is thick and sticky as he turns awkwardly around and raises his arms. Then he's touching it at last, fingers weaving into thick stiff hairs around the animal's neck, burying his face into its coat. It's rough and slick at the same time, he breathes in the heavy scent and feels a wet muzzle nudging him in a silent question.
He smiles into the thick fur. Now he's happy, now he only wants to lie down and sleep, but the stag won't let him. It's agitated, it makes low sounds and begins to shuffle onward, dragging the man who won't let go of its neck. It feels so good, so warm, his arms are so tired but he won't let go. Slowly he pulls himself up, crawls forward like a mole until he's sprawled on the animal's back, hands grabbing its coat. He's so tired, his head is burning, and every step of the stag echoes inside him in a dull wave of pain. So softly and steadily it treads, as if mindful of his condition.
He doesn't know how long it's been since he drifted into a slumber, but when he wakes up enough to open his eyes, it's getting dark. He's thirsty and hot, or maybe cold, he's not sure any more, but that doesn't matter now. He knows he's never been this deep into the woods. Dark, dense forest surrounds them, trees all around, every branch decorated by a long beard of lichen. There is something strange straight ahead and the stag is impatient. It stomps its feet, lets out a quiet snort. The man peers ahead and then slides down onto unsteady feet, grabs the animal for support but it shakes him loose and walks forth. The man sways and squints his weary eyes.
Two ancient elms grow side by side, far enough apart so that the man could perhaps just touch each of them if he went to stand between them and spread his arms. Their gnarled trunks bend towards each other, so that at the height of about two men they entwine together in a riot of leaves and twigs. Between them, the forest looks brighter, greener, lighter.
The man frowns. Is this his fever making him see things? Surely that's just a trick of the waning light, or maybe it's just because the shining black stag is standing between him and the strange gateway, looking over its shoulder at him. Then it turns and leaps into the passage.
He stares after it. He's so cold, his head is throbbing and his feet don't want to move an inch, but he doesn't want to lose the living warmth that has carried him this far. He trudges closer, takes the last few steps and closes his eyes.
When he opens them again, he has to blink. Is he dreaming again? This is not the forest he has seen in his dreams, yet the light is the same. It's dusky and he can't really see colors, but he can see textures, shadows, movement. The forest around. The shrubbery. Deeper darkness under trees. Berries. The eyes of an owl. A tiny mouse that freezes for a moment before darting away, leaving behind a scent trail of startled fear.
He wants to look around but something slows him down. His head is heavy, his body feels strange and he tries to raise a hand to touch his head, then realizes that he cannot feel his arms. They have no feeling. Frightened, he looks down at himself, feels a weight pulling his head down, hears a snapping sound and sees 每 hooves.
That's when he truly panics for the first time. He yells, except that what comes out is a groaning hoot, deep and penetrating. It echoes in the woods, he bursts into a run and understands in a flash that he's moving not on two but four legs, that the weight on his head is something that snags on branches as he runs blindly onwards, on and on. The air smells of a million things but he doesn't stop until the heavy something on his head catches on a thick branch so hard that he loses his balance and lurches forward, lungs burning.
And there it is again, the black stag, the devil's deer. It has been running alongside him with an easy gait, keeping abreast of him, and now it has stopped to watch as he staggers up. His fear and panic and sheer fury rise once more, he has no idea what is happening and why and how, can he do it or not, but he wants revenge and he can think of only one way to have it now. A red haze fills his mind as he lowers his head and charges.
The crash is deafening, the impact enough to make him see stars, but he stands his ground, hind legs straining. Antlers crackle as they smash together, breath turns into harsh groans, hooves and tendons snap with exertion. His adversary is strong. He pants for air, feels his footing slip, falls on his knees.
The air tastes sweet and heavy, it's full of something he can't name. It intoxicates him. Neither of them is giving in. Heads sink slowly lower, spiky crowns still locked together. He's exhausted. His last thought before oblivion is that the black stag has won. Just like he knew it would in the end.
Light is the first thing he's conscious of. He opens his eyes slowly, sees the light screened by dense trees into a soft, green dusk, and wonders what this new dream is.
He turns his head, marveling at the softness underneath him, grabs a handful of it and looks. Dry moss and lichen, animal hairs, leaves. They have been worked into a nest-like bed in a recess between high tree roots and undergrowth, they smell of forest and sleep and safety. He breathes in the scent, then starts and raises his hand once more in front of his face. A hand, yes, his hand. Tanned, scarred, scraped. His own hand. He sinks bony fingers into his hair, combs them through tangled curls, touches his body. He's a man again, a bunch of bones and dry muscle, like cords of rope; but a man. Even in this new dream.
The fever is gone and so are the cold and the splitting headache and weariness and dull pain in his lungs. He feels rested and for a while he just lies there to relish the feeling. Why and how and if he's still alive to dream like this, he doesn't know. He doesn't want to think, just enjoy, and he closes his eyes again, smiling to himself.
He's not really tired any more, but it's so easy to drift back into sleep in this gentle light, on a soft bed that smells of warmth. He raises an arm, nestles his head more comfortably in the crook, sighs contentedly. The forest is silent once more, but this time it's a comfortable silence.
He knows he has dozed off because a slight movement nearby startles him awake. He peers through his eyelashes at the offender, then gasps and his eyes open wide.
Next to him squats a youth, hardly more than a boy. He is very slim, face triangular and tanned, hair a wild, ragged mess of dark brown. The man wonders if it has ever even seen a comb, then almost laughs at his own crazy thoughts. The youth looks at him, head tilting in an oddly familiar gesture, lips twitching a little. His eyes are huge, slanted, like brown amber or the honey of heather blossoms.
"How do you feel?"
The man chokes at the voice. It's dark, too, yet somehow translucent, clear and cool. Like the water in bog springs.
He has to try a few times before his throat, so used to silence, is willing to work.
"Who are you?" he asks hoarsely.
The youth smiles and cocks his head again and now the man knows what it makes him think of. He remembers the fox cubs he came across a few summers previously, their small faces and bright eyes. Too young to be afraid of him, that's exactly how they looked at him from between the grass and shrubbery: heads turning this way and that, trying to decide what to make of this strange giant standing in front of them. He remembers grinning and letting them be; too small for furs, he told himself then. Not worth the trouble.
"Thelenor," the youth says. "My name is Thelenor."
"Thelenor," he repeats slowly, trying to get the name roll from his tongue in that same way. Like water tumbling over stones in a brook. The youth smiles and nods, hugs his knees to his chest with bare arms and sits his narrow chin on them. The man pushes himself up on an elbow, suddenly wary.
"Thelenor," he says again. It sounds strange in his mouth, the word, and he sits up. They are all alone in the quiet forest. "What are you?"
This time the youth laughs a little. "Does it matter?"
The man stares at him, then slowly shakes his head. "I don't know," he says. "But where are we? What happened? What happens now? Did you bring me here?"
"You have many questions." The boy's smile widens. "Won't you tell me your name first?"
"I'm Bareth," he says. "Please, Thelenor. Tell me. Is this a dream?"
Thelenor laughs again, rocks a little, and Bareth glowers at him. "What's so funny?"
"I cannot tell you where we are," the youth says. "It wouldn't mean anything to you anyway. You don't know this place."
Bareth snorts a little, frustrated. "All right then. At least tell me whether this is a dream or what. Am I dreaming? Am I dead?"
"You tell me." Thelenor's gaze is intense. "What do you think?"
Bareth frowns, then leans closer and slowly raises a hand. He looks into those amber eyes, hand hovering closer, still closer. Thelenor holds his breath, he's biting his lip a little and Bareth can feel the warmth of soft skin even before his fingers brush against it. He hears the hiss of Thelenor's breath, sees dark eyelashes flutter as if wanting to close, but the eyes don't turn away. And now it's his turn not to breathe as he cups the boy's face in his palm for a moment before snatching his hand back and turning away.
But Thelenor smiles still, touches Bareth's arm with his fingers. "Am I real?" he asks quietly.
Bareth is panting hard, not saying a word, and Thelenor nudges him a little. "Am I?"
"How would I know?" Bareth whispers. "This has to be a dream. I'm dreaming this all."
"Then you know what will happen next." Thelenor nods and hugs his knees again, looks sagely at Bareth who turns to face him once more.
"Yes," Bareth says slowly. Inside him, confusion is battling with exasperation. He's fumbling in the dark, he's lost his footing in this bizarre dream, and his temper is rising to fight. "Yes, I know. This is my dream. None of this is really happening, I'm dreaming this all, and you're just part of this dream. So you will do what I want and right now I want you to tell me how I got here."
"I think you know it already," Thelenor says and Bareth huffs. Now he's angry; Thelenor is not playing by the rules.
"The stag," he grinds out. "Yes. It was the stag, it brought me here 每 but why? Is it yours?"
Thelenor's lips pull into a thoughtful pout, then he shakes his head. "No." He draws the word out. "No, it's not mine."
"But you know why it brought me here?" Bareth presses on. "Remember 每 this is my dream. You have to answer me. Now. Why am I here?"
"Because." Thelenor stops rocking, sits cross-legged on the ground and leans his elbows on his knees. "Because I want to ask you something."
Bareth simply waits, silent. Thelenor's face is intense, his lips parted. Under the dark hair his eyes are strangely luminous even in the dim evening light.
"You must choose, Bareth." Thelenor's hands creep up to grab slim upper arms. They squeeze, as if he's feeling cold. "Will you stay here with me, or will you go back?"
"Back?" Bareth gapes. "What do you mean, back?"
"Back to the 每 to your old life." Thelenor nods, as if to assure them both. "If you want to return and live on like nothing has happened, I'll show you the way back and then say goodbye. You will forget all this."
"Is that it?" Bareth's eyes narrow into slits. "Is that really all? The stag brought me here, all the way here, just so that you could offer to take me back?"
"Of course not!" The youth huffs in disdain. "No, you're here so that I could ask you to stay."
"But why?" Bareth tries to read an answer from the clear amber of the boy's eyes but fails. All he sees is the luster, like a spring mirroring the sun. "What does it all mean? What will happen then?"
Thelenor opens his mouth, then suddenly looks frightened and shakes his head. "I cannot say more. I'm sorry."
"You cannot?" Bareth laughs incredulously, harshly. "Like hell you cannot! This is my dream, remember? And I say that you must tell me."
"I can't!" Thelenor pulls away but Bareth follows him, nostrils flaring as he recognizes the scent.
"If I stay," he growls, crawling towards the boy, "what will I be? Tell me, Thelenor! What will I be then? A man? A stag? Or something else?"
Thelenor is breathing hard, trying to get away, but Bareth's hand grabs his arm and yanks him back. Bareth shakes him roughly, then suddenly freezes and his eyes glaze over.
He feels it again. The fury, the heat, the haze, the scream of straining muscles and the creaking of antlers locked to each other in a death grip. Sensations hit him like a flash flood and leave him gulping for air, and he just knows he hasn't imagined a single second of it. He's trapped inside a mad dream, but it's still the same dream.
Slowly his eyes focus again, and he sees once more Thelenor's face in front of him.
"There is no choice really, is there?" he whispers through clenched teeth. "It did happen 每 the trees, the stag, the battle... Something has already happened to me, isn't that so?"
His grip tightens. "Tell me the truth, now! What is this all about? What's 每 what will 每 happen..."
Words catch in his throat as he looks down into huge honey-brown eyes. They are wide and wild, the boy's lips part as he meets Bareth's gaze. He's breathing quickly, pale throat throbbing, frightened and yet not. It's not fear Bareth sees in those eyes, or rather, not only fear. There's a challenge and a sorrow.
His fingers dig into thin shoulders and then recognition clicks in his brain as he breathes in the scent of Thelenor's hair. It's musky, it's heady, it's the scent of lust, it makes his whole body go aflame. Bareth swallows, tries to speak again through the thickening haze in his mind. "This is my dream, and you... will do what I... want you to."
His mouth crushes Thelenor's lips. The youth makes a startled sound and his body tenses, then simply melts under Bareth's hands. Slim arms snake around Bareth's wiry torso, lips press together, tongues entwine. Bareth devours the strange, willing youth, he licks and bites unblemished skin, and if they were wearing something a moment ago or not, he can't tell, because very soon there is nothing to hide Thelenor's body from his eyes.
Yes, this is Bareth's dream. His secret obsession, the thing he has longed for in vain, something he has closed outside his consciousness as best he can. Nobody must know or even guess this quirk in his nature, so he has hidden it deep and well, guarded jealously his painful secret. Dreams have kept him company in his solitude, but fearing ridicule and rejection he has always avoided the reality. Let the others shun and suspect what they will, as long as they don't know the truth: that women leave him indifferent whereas the beauty of a male body fills him with craving, lust and awe.
And here is Thelenor, splayed nude in front of him. Thelenor with his messy mop of dark hair, slim limbs quivering with tension, large eyes smiling at him in incredulous glee. He's beautiful, so beautiful and so strange. There is no body hair on Thelenor's skin, supple and smooth, and Bareth wants to touch it, to kiss it. Thelenor's hands rise to touch him, they tickle the pale trail of hair on his chest, follow it down to his navel and lower still. The boy pulls his lip between sharp white teeth and lets out a little laugh when Bareth, on hands and knees above him, bows down and buries his face into a gently tanned neck.
Thelenor tastes of many things, sweet and salty and bitter, he smells of green, of pitch and marsh and moss and deer. Bareth nuzzles his hair, it's full of twigs and leaves from the earthy mattress underneath them, he closes his eyes and sees once more the odd nighttime light and the black stag running through it. His lips find a curving shell underneath the hair, he listens to Thelenor's shuddering breath as the tip of his tongue traces its contour, then his eyes blink open and he stares at the pointy ear.
Is this a dream after all? Bareth thinks. But why is he dreaming of pointy ears and messy hair, why not of someone more like himself? Of a fellow hunter, or a young man from the villages? Then he forgets all such thoughts when cool fingers curl around his swollen cock and squeeze gently. How can it be that such a slim hand feels so infinitely better than his own? Thelenor pants and moans, teeth nipping Bareth's shoulder, whispers something over and over again.
"Mine... my mate... my own."
Bareth kisses him, gathers Thelenor in his arms. He doesn't care what this creature is, all he cares for is the way Thelenor feels against him, the way those arms and legs wrap around him, the way busy lips touch his skin. Thelenor is cool and smooth to touch, Bareth lets one hand tousle that dark hair and laughs when his other palm glides along the flat planes of the boy's body.
Such an odd dream, he thinks, but he doesn't want it to end. Not now, when he's kissing a beautiful youth who hums eagerly into the kiss and pleasures him with long strokes that make his eyes roll back in his head. Not now, when he's sucking Thelenor's nipples that are hard as barely ripe berries, when Thelenor laughs breathlessly and spreads his legs to wrap them around Bareth's hips. Not now when his hand slips between their bodies to play with the slick, hard length that presses against his stomach, to squeeze it gently, to feel the incredible smoothness of its head, to make Thelenor nearly wail with pleasure.
Bareth wants this dream to go on and on, he wants to do all the things he's only ever imagined during lonely nights when his own hands have been so hopelessly inadequate to quench the ache and yearning of his body. He tastes the creamy droplets glistening on Thelenor's cock, laughs when the youth sobs in ecstasy, lifts Thelenor in his arms and kisses him again. And when his body convulses and the burst of release makes him groan into Thelenor's mouth, when Thelenor's nails dig into his shoulders and the boy throws his head back with a low gasp, Bareth would gladly give everything, save the youth in his arms, if that would make this dream last forever.
Afterwards he just holds Thelenor who curls against him and thinks hazily what a good thing it is to be dreaming, because he doesn't feel at all cold even though he's lying stark naked on the ground, in the middle of forest, an equally naked youth hugged to his chest. Thelenor can't get close enough and Bareth laughs gently as slim limbs hold him tight.
"My mate," Thelenor whispers. "My own mate."
"Is this what you wanted all along?" Bareth mumbles and feels the nod. "Why didn't you just tell me, silly?"
"I couldn't," Thelenor sighs. "It's part of the curse. That I can only ask once. Not plead or explain, nothing, just..."
Bareth squeezes tighter. "The curse?" He's frowning. "What have you done, beautiful one?"
"Nothing." Thelenor sniffs a little. "Let me tell you a story."
And he tells, the words rolling over Bareth like a relentless stream. Thelenor tells of elves, like humans but children of a different god, and a treaty some of them have broken a long time ago, in times immemorial. He tells of the curse placed upon his race, of the punishment that runs forever in their blood and strikes blindly, capriciously. He tells of elf families anxiously watching their sons grow up and approach maturity, of sleepless nights spent hoping and praying that the critical time would pass without incident, that the boy could look forward to an ordinary elf's life.
Thelenor also tells of the grief that grips the entire family when an elf boy suddenly finds himself transformed into a black stag. They know then that the curse has had him marked ever since birth, and they mourn because they know what his future will hold: loneliness, longing, sorrow. A forlorn quest for a man, a human man, who'd willingly share his wandering life, and of the craving that forces the elf to try again and again, makes him hope despite crushing guilt that maybe this time...
Thelenor clings to Bareth tightly and he rocks the trembling elf in his arms, shushes him gently. "Guilt?"
"It's no use deciding that I will not do it, ever again," Thelenor sobs, tripping on his words. "I've decided that, every time. After that beautiful dark young man went mad before we ever reached the Passage. And the other one, he flew into such mindless panic when he realized he'd been transformed into a deer that he ran himself to death 每 oh, I tried to stop him but he was totally mad with fear 每 and the hunter, the one who tried to kill me, he never let me say a word, just told me to go away. I had to watch him go and I knew he was going to die, because he'd been changed already. I've killed every one of them, it's my fault, don't you understand? I've decided after every one that I'd never never ever call another man, that I'd sooner die than see it again..."
"Hush!" Bareth kisses Thelenor until the shivers subside, whispers into his soft skin and rough hair. "Don't think of them any more. We're here now, aren't we?"
"Yes." It's a puff of warm air on Bareth's skin and he can hear Thelenor's smile. "And you are my mate."
"But how did you know that I wasn't going to reject you after all?" Bareth mumbles, sleep creeping at last over him. "I hadn't decided yet."
"Yes you had." Thelenor presses still a little closer. "In your heart you had chosen to stay 每 or else you'd have kissed a stag."
Bareth chuckles. He doesn't really understand it, and besides, this is all just a strange dream anyway. But he rather likes this dream.
His eyes fall slowly closed and he hugs Thelenor tight.
It looks like it has once been something made by human hands: a tent, or perhaps a lean-to. Rotten poles have collapsed into a heap, decomposed branches of fir that once served as the roof are barely recognizable any more. Animals have found shelter here, burrowed underneath it, maybe even hid food here. Beside it there's a hole in the ground, thickly overgrown by moss. On some stones it's still possible to detect the black soot left by a fire.
A wet muzzle almost touches the stones, sniffs at the faint smell of long extinguished flames. The black stag raises its head, turns slowly as if surveying the place, deep in thought. Ears flick, a forked hoof scrapes the ground.
Another dark shape emerges from the woods and walks to the first, long bodies pressing close. Its head tilts so that huge antlers clack gently together and the animals rub shoulder to shoulder, necks bending gracefully apart so as to keep their crowns from snagging on each other.
The second stag lets out a low barking sound and leaps forward. Its mate follows and together they vanish once more into the deepening shadows.